Throughout his tenure as Ball State head coach, Rich Maloney has consistently stressed to his players the importance of never taking a backseat and having the belief they could compete against anyone.
Traveling from snowy Muncie to sunny Tucson, Arizona, the Cardinals (2-2, 0-0 MAC) did just that this weekend and split their season-opening series against the No. 22 Wildcats (2-2, 0-0 Pac-12) as the team took the field for the first time since March 2020. The four-game series was the first-ever between both teams and while Maloney said his players are a long way from reaching their full potential, he was impressed with their early season grit and confidence.
"I thought this weekend was a home run for us," Maloney said. "If you said to anyone in the country, 'Ball State is going to go to Arizona and win two games,' I don't think there's one person that would've thought that in the baseball world. This was big for our guys, and now, they know we can beat anybody."
Because of unfavorable weather conditions, Maloney said, Ball State hadn't practiced outside heading into the series. He stressed a couple areas of improvement moving forward, including bunting and fielding, but was pleased with the collective effort.
"[Arizona's] a highly recognized team," Maloney said. "You haven't even been outside to practice, and you're taking on a giant...The experience of beating Arizona not just once but twice was an accomplishment and a huge step in the right direction of believing."
The Cardinals fell 3-0 to the Wildcats in the season opener Friday night. Sophomore right-handed pitcher Ty Weatherly earned the nod for Ball State and delivered three strikeouts in four innings. Despite the loss, freshman right-hander Ty Johnson struck out the side in the eighth inning while making his Ball State debut.
It was Saturday, though, when the momentum shifted between both teams. The Cardinals trailed 7-3 heading into the eighth before the team put up a 4-spot to send the game into extra innings. Tied 7-7 in the top of the 11th, senior outfielder Ross Messina's bases-loaded walk sent sophomore infielder Ryan Peltier home for the lead, who started the rally with a lead-off single. Senior right-handed pitcher John Baker pitched four scoreless innings and struck out seven while surrendering just two hits for the win.
Ball State carried its momentum into Sunday with a 5-2 win, thanks to a four-run sixth. After junior infielder Trenton Quartermaine recorded an RBI single in the fifth, Messina's two-run single in the sixth was the difference-maker along with RBI singles from senior outfielder Aaron Simpson and junior outfielder Nick Powell.
While the win might've been just Ball State's second this season, it was a milestone for Maloney, winning his 500th game as Ball State head coach. Reflecting on the occasion, Maloney said achieving the milestone was a testament to all the work his players have put in over the years and their dedication toward Ball State Baseball.
"The 500th is really a staple to say we've got a very recognized program," Maloney said. "The program we've had over the years that I've been coaching has been recognized as a top-notch program, and it's because of the guys I've had the privilege of recruiting. The guys believed, and they got better."
The Cardinals concluded the series Monday, falling 11-5 to the Wildcats and splitting the two-game series. Despite the loss, each player in the team's starting lineup except for junior catcher Adam Christianson and Peltier recorded a hit. The team's depth was evident Sunday, too, as seven Cardinals recorded at least one hit in the aforementioned win.
Because of COVID-19 giving his players an extra year of eligibility, Maloney said the Cardinals have quickly taken advantage of their depth so far this season and believes they have a little more than in an average season.
"You've got guys that would've been done with baseball that returned, and you've got many of them," Maloney said. "We had five that came back from the nine seniors, and they were all players that had been very successful in 2019 when we won 38 games. We knew coming into [the season] we had a veteran team."
Along with Johnson, Maloney said other freshmen players who made an impact this weekend were third basemen/outfielder Tyler Hinrikus (one hit, two RBIs, two runs scored), third baseman/outfielder Decker Scheffler (two hits, one run scored) and right-handed pitcher Sam Klein (1.1 innings pitched, one earned run, two strikeouts in Monday's loss).
"It was good to get their feet wet, so that was a positive," Maloney said. "I felt a lot of positives and certainly, things we need to work on, but some of the things we need to work on, you've got to be outside to be able to do."
The Cardinals return to action Feb. 27-28 for a three-game series against Charleston Southern.